Former American CEO’s New Charity Looks to Break Down Barriers

Doug Parker is on a new mission to remove some of the barriers to entry that exist for prospective careers in aviation.

Left to right: Dana Donati, Gwen Parker, and Doug Parker [Photo: Glenn Watson]

Former American Airlines CEO Doug Parker is back in the limelight again after he retired from a nearly decade-long career leading the world’s largest airline back in 2021. But now the former airline chief is embarking on a new mission: to attract the next generation of pilots and aviation professionals from so-called ‘underrepresented’ communities.

Joined by his wife Gwen—a former American flight attendant—along with Dana Donati, who previously led United’s Aviate Academy, the trio is debuting a new charity called Breaking Down Barriers. At its core, they say the new charity’s goal is to foster interest, mentorship, and career development for individuals who are otherwise underrepresented in the aviation sector, including minorities and women. The charity’s initial roll-out will focus on pilots, according to Parker.

“At least from my perspective, the two biggest barriers were one, this financial requirement and the other is awareness just because of the history in the industry. I just think there are a lot of people out there that have the full ability to do this but don’t know it exists,” Parker said during an interview with AirlineGeeks at the Frontiers of Flight Museum in Dallas.

In the U.S., 93.7 percent of professional aviators are Caucasian and 92.5 percent are men as of 2020, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

“But those people exist in underrepresented communities as well. So what we really want is just to go find those people who have the same skills that the airlines are looking for…and identify them ourselves,” Parker continued.

Help Through the Training Process

Amid an ongoing pilot shortage, Parker and team are hopeful that their new non-profit can also aid in mentoring prospective aviators through the often tedious flight training process. Despite record issuances of airline transport pilot (ATP) certificates, consultancy firm Oliver Wyman expects North America to be short nearly 30,000 pilots by 2032.

No prior certificates are required to receive a scholarship from Breaking Down Barriers, not even the entry-level private pilot certificate. “So, we’re providing the scholarships to do the training, but it’s also about the coaching and the mentoring,” said Donati during the interview. “I currently have my CFI, so I’ll be on these students, making sure that they’re studying.”

Parker, who started his airline industry career in 1986 within American’s finance department, became chairman, president, and CEO of America West Airlines in 2001. Having taken the helm of the Phoenix-based airline 10 days before the September 11 terrorist attacks, he led the airline through some choppy waters.

In 2005, Parker orchestrated the merger of US Airways and America West. Seven years later, he joined US Airways and American together, forming the world’s largest airline. He served as CEO of American until March 2021.

“We just know because that demand [for pilots] exists, it’s a real [chance] to make sure that we don’t miss this opportunity to open it up to the best of the best,” Parker added. “Those that have barriers in front of them, we want to help pull those barriers down so they can succeed to their full potential.”

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on An in-depth version of this story will be available in an upcoming print edition of FLYING magazine.

Ryan Ewing
Ryan EwingContributor
Ryan founded back in February 2013 and has amassed considerable experience in the aviation sector. His work has been featured in several publications and news outlets, including CNN, WJLA, CNET, and Business Insider. During his time in the industry, he's worked in roles pertaining to airport/airline operations while holding a B.S. in Air Transportation Management from Arizona State University along with an MBA. Ryan has experience in several facets of the industry from behind the yoke of a Cessna 172 to interviewing airline industry executives. Ryan works for AirlineGeeks' owner FLYING Media, spearheading coverage in the commercial aviation space.

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